The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be – Anne Frank
From Mt Carmel Junction, historic Route 89 meanders north, brushing the flowing green skirt of Dixie National Forest. Bracketed by khaki sandstone and mustard colored fields, it threads atop southern Utah’s high plateau, flat to the eye. Riding a ridge-line above 8,000 feet, just outside the small town of Hatch, gentle elevation changes roll the narrow road. It’s a warm late February morning and as the sun rises over Black Butte to the east, land to the west is bathed in sunlight. Great dark lines of shadow cut across border fences, as cattle move about lazily, seeking the sun’s warmth. Several fields lay neatly rowed in deep brown, freshly plowed.
Turning east on Route 12, Black Mountain sits broken by early light. Her crown suffused with color, her earthbound folds hidden in grey shadow. Canyons slice the open plains, suddenly giving depth and texture to the landscape. As I approach the southeastern edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, there are no hints of what’s to come. I am in a high plains forest of Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen, dotted with the blue-grey trunks of Rocky Mountain Juniper. Hidden below the plateau’s rim, stand the burnt orange Legend People, turned to stone by the trickster Coyote. Anka-ku-was-a-wits, Paiute for “red painted faces”. The hoodoos of Bryce Canyon.
Entering from the north, the western landscape of Bryce Canyon National Park is forested high plateau. In places, lightning strikes have patterned thousands of thin leafless black trees, leaving an eerie visual stillness. Looking west, there is no recognition of what lies only yards to the east. I wondered if the charred unremarkable landscape harbored any jealousy. There are no roads into her. There are no observation points looking west. She sits alone, watching each visitor peer eastward with awe.
An 18 mile stretch of Route 63 runs north and south above the canyon, which falls away exclusively to the east. As with most parks where the main artery winds above a canyon, multiple overlooks provide stunning views. Yovimpa Point, Piracy Point, Paira View. Trails lead down into the hoodoos. Roads pierce the rim’s edge. Bryce Canyon lies accessible, open for all to see. Majestic shades of red, orange and yellow color the oddly figured, tightly knit forms. A great gathering of sandstone. Amphitheaters shaped by frost, wind and water.
There are two distinctly different ways to experience Bryce Canyon and the red painted faces – from above and below. Hiking the rim trail provides several miles of spectacular views down into the canyon. Hoodoos glazed with a thin dusting of snow, white hooded, stand in sharp contrast. Patches of green sit 700 feet below. A pine forest among the rock, softening the harsh stone. Elevation changes along the rim can be dramatic in places, but at no time is the view into the canyon less than stunning.
Queen’s Garden Trail descends slowly into the canyon near Sunrise Point. The well-traveled path twists among the hoodoos. As you walk between pitted walls, their fragility becomes obvious. Up close the sandstone seems to be shedding itself, leaving a thin coat of dust along each base. The elements have not shown them any kindness. It is an eternal, uneven wearing away that will one day render them invisible. But today, nature does nothing to diminish their beauty. They are each unique, born of the elements, colors shifting as the sun moves across the morning sky.
Reaching the bottom, everything softens. Small drifts of snow tuck among downed branches. Rocks encircled in crusted ice, melting outward from warmer stone. Woodpeckers leave signatures in pines, their sharp tat-tat-tat ever present. Hoodoos stare down from above, towering over the forest floor. On this day, a cloudless blue sky is visible between the rusty sentinels, lending itself to a contrast of primary colors. Venturing down to a weathered log, I dropped my backpack and sat for about an hour. I was in no hurry and the woodpeckers provided a pinging backdrop that soon faded and all left was the wind.
Along the forest floor, Navajo Loop intersects Queen’s Garden Trail and immediately begins an ascent. After wandering upward for a few hundred yards, a series of steep switchbacks come into view. The climb from floor to rim is almost 800 feet, in well under a mile. I lean into the grade, not wanting to invite gravity’s backward pull. Reddish colored bricks reinforce portions of the trail, preventing collapse. Passing sand filled openings, sun high on the rocks above, the trail levels out for a few feet before the final switchbacks. Snow drifts lay along downward sloping curves. I rested on the edge, looking down at a metropolis of stone. Buildings of various heights, boulevards carved into the striped stone.
Most of the parks I have visited to this point have been out of season, campgrounds rarely full. For those of us who have found our way, campfires spring up as the sun slides under the western horizon. Inwardly, RV’s light up with smart televisions – mimicking the comforts of home. Cooking food drifts on the air from one site to another. Flickering lamps cast shadows onto tents from the inside, highlighting the nylon color. As stars twinkle in children’s rhyme and the sounds of night lend their subtle voices, everyone settles into their own version of comfort.
When night falls in a park, I am alone. I have time to ponder – to think and wonder. I have time to reflect on the day and plan for tomorrow. I have time to miss those I love. Ample time to replay life’s scenarios on a continuous loop. I do not have a smart TV, or a den that replicates home. I am traveling light – compact. I have what I need. A comfortable bed, clothes for all seasons, a portable cook stove, great boots and good socks, a sturdy backpack, poles, tent, french press, computer, several books and photos of my boys. I’m probably missing a few things, but nothing that affects the drive to explore and document. I am happy with my tiny home on wheels. I am fortunate to be in our National Parks.
Sunset Point is a small rise, elevated above a trail skirting the canyon’s rim. It is cold and the wind pushes tree limbs beside the trail, as I turn and climb the last few steps to an observation platform. The sun’s dying light refuses to give up its power, casting colors across the sky in one last gaudy display. Clouds absorb pink and red, against a backdrop of blue-black. Orange light settles on the hoodoos, as a swath of moon white pours across the shallow snow resting in the high valleys. It is the sky competing with the earth.
On this evening, there is one other person at Sunset Point. He is slowly moving his iPhone across the landscape, narrating a video of an imperious mother nature, words muffled by the wind. I motion to the amphitheater below. Not a bad place to be. He can’t hear me, but smiles and says, “It’s magnificent.” He is young – maybe mid 20’s. I begin to take photos. The sky is breathtaking, fading into purple streaks. “Where are you from?” Michigan. You? “I moved to Utah from Colorado to be closer to this.” Colorado’s beautiful as well. “It is, but southern Utah has the parks. My name is Charles. What brings you here?” Smitty. Charles was my dad’s name. I tell him about TheMountCo Project. “Wow. That’s something else. I have to check it out.” The sky quickly darkens and I begin walking down to the rim. He follows and after about ten minutes of silence we each find our way back to our vehicles. “Nice meeting you Smitty.” You as well Charles. Be safe. “Hey. Write about Utah. Write about the sunset.” I will Charles. I will.
NOTE: For more information on Bryce Canyon National Park and all the National Parks and to help with trip planning, download the free Chimani app to your smart phone to easily navigate your way around the park, with or without cell phone service.